BOOKLOVER10's Reviews > Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman
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"Spies of No Country" is set during the twenty months between January 1948 and August 1949. No sooner was the state of Israel founded than its Jewish inhabitants faced annihilation by her neighbors. Matti Friedman focuses on a small band of Arabic-speaking Jews who risked their lives by going undercover in Haifa and Beirut in order to spy on Israel's enemies. Friedman focuses on Syrian-born Gamliel Cohen and Isaac Shoshan; Havakuk Cohen from Yemen; and Yakuba Cohen, who was born in Jerusalem when it was under British rule. These volunteers were undisciplined amateurs who communicated using a primitive radio set. They paid close attention to the chatter around them, and sent reports about Arab morale, their foes’ military strength, and other information that might prove helpful. In addition, members of the Arab Section carried out acts of sabotage and attempted to assassinate a particularly dangerous antagonist. "They improvised, saw what worked, and used it."

Friedman pays tribute to these and other individuals who risked their lives in an effort to tilt the odds in favor of Israel's existence. The Jews of the "Arab Section" were "drawn from the lower rungs of Middle Eastern society,” and had little experience in making life-or-death decisions. They were trained to behave like Arabs, took lessons on handling weapons and explosives, and were ordered not to speak to their families (not everyone obeyed). They did not know for sure whether their actions would have a significant impact on Israel’s ultimate fate. Friedman evokes the tense atmosphere in the Middle East during a time when Jews, with their backs against the sea, used the limited resources at their disposal to wage all-out war against the local Palestinian militia and the armies of five Arab countries.

The author, who conducted extensive research, brings this historical period to life with excellent descriptive writing and a host of colorful anecdotes. His sources include material from Israel's military archives; published histories written in Hebrew by Zvika Dror and Gamliel Cohen; and lengthy interviews that Friedman conducted over a period of years with one of the aforementioned spies. This enlightening and engrossing account, which is enhanced by evocative black and white photos, sheds light on the struggles of a courageous band of brothers whose efforts have become a footnote in the history of Israeli espionage. In these pages are fascinating stories of human interest, an overview of the politics and deep-seated hatred that led to so much death and destruction, and passages of dark humor and irony. Matti Friedman sadly points out that the Israeli government has not always treated Middle Eastern Jews as first-class citizens. Instead, he informs us, "They [Jews born in Arabic countries] were condescended to and pushed to the fringes” when they settled in Israel. To set the record straight, Friedman tells the story of Gamliel, Isaac, Havakuk, Yakuba, and others in the Arab Section, whose contributions and self-sacrifice set the stage for what would later become one of the most sophisticated intelligence networks in the world--the Mossad.
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March 24, 2019 – Shelved
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